Music is the Healing Force of the
Universe: The Different Statuses of Modernism
in Visual Art and Music
By David Grundy
Modernist (and post-modernist) visual art has arguably become part of our visual culture – we think nothing of a once-shocking Picasso painting and Warholian collages are part and parcel of TV makeover design. But modernist music hasn’t permeated mainstream musical culture to nearly the same extent. Why is that modernism in the visual arts has received so more widespread acceptance than modernism in music? Virtually everyone knows who Picasso is, and could probably recognize one of his works if they tried, but mention Schoenberg or Cecil Taylor or Captain Beefheart and you’ll either get a bemused, non-comprehending look or a sigh of disgust.
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Is it because music reaches to a deeper level, cuts to the heart, cuts beneath the barriers we can construct between ourselves and what we see, what we read? We can filter these through our mind, we can take time to consider them: we can look at a work of art for minutes on end, because it exists as an object in space, we can read a sentence from a book and then ponder it for several minutes before moving on to the next sentence. But music is different: you can’t keep pausing it to digest the latest bit of information, and you can’t stand around it to examine the details as you can with a painting or sculpture – except afterwards, in your mind, or, if you’re very dedicated, and have the appropriate technology, by going back to the track and playing it a few seconds at a time. If you listen to a piece of music, you have to let it flow straight into you, and because it’s much more of an immediate experience than other art forms, it’s also more frightening; it exposes you to the possibility of having to feel.
Sure, you can be moved by a painting or a novel, or a poem, but, I’d argue, not in the same way as you can be moved by music. It catches you off your guard; there’s something about it that provokes a deep level of feeling in the listener that is beyond words, beyond images – something deep and mysterious which accounts for its great attraction to so many people. In early cultures this might have been the intense physical sensation of banging the drum (the next step up from banging the bone on the piece of rock, from tapping out the first rhythm), or of letting loose the voice from the throat, in an aesthetised version of such deep-rooted, primeval human noises as the scream, the cry, the laugh. Perhaps the blues are also deeply connected to such sounds. Interestingly, jazz drummer Shelly Manne described the sound of saxophonist Ornette Coleman, a player heavily influenced by blues feeling (if less so by blues form), as “like a person crying…or a person laughing.”
More so than other art forms, then, music thrives on spontaneity, on being something of the moment. As Eric Dolphy puts it in a (much-quoted) interview snippet at the end of his superlative record Last Date, “when you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.” It doesn’t exist as an object. It exists as something living, not static – to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, words and music move in (or through) time. And it’s in the twentieth century, with the advent of jazz, and, in particularly, the strongly spontaneous languages of free jazz and free improvisation, that music’s potentiality for such a flowing, organic, natural role was arguably developed to its fullest extent. This is particularly applicable to jazz, as I’ll go on to explain. Different performers of classical works undoubtedly bring different interpretative elements to the music, meaning that it can never be heard exactly the same way twice – there is no absolutely precise template for how it should sound, though the musical notation of the composition gives a pretty precise idea. However, such differences are generally minimal – even an extreme case, like Glenn Gould’s different recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, taking at radically different tempos and with different emotional viewpoints, are recognizably versions of the same notated piece of music.
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Jazz improvisation is a different kettle of fish, though: by its nature, it is something of the moment, expressing the player’s socially/culturally/musically conditioned attitudes (whether to a small or large extent depends on the player) but in a spontaneous form which lays them bare. And maybe it’s this we don’t like – it expresses the things beneath the surface, things we might be uncomfortable with, it implies the loss of control, away from the safety of written notation and into a region where creativity can be exercised in a much freer, looser way.
Now I realize this view of improvisation in jazz is very simplistic, and is certainly not applicable to much of jazz – but that’s perhaps also because players and audiences don’t really understand what jazz really is (more on this in the next paragraph). Classical music (and pop music, etc, etc) can of course express emotion wonderfully well – I am by no means implying that music being written makes it less viable, less emotionally strong. Far from it, in fact – perhaps having time to think through your ideas and write them down means you express them more fully, you draw out every last inch of emotion. And some jazz seems almost emotionally shallow compared to classical music.
To audiences especially, it becomes just a sound, a way of being less stuffy than classical music but more sophisticated than pop music, an idea of ‘cool’. The ‘Beat generation’ of the 1950s saw writers such as Kerouac linking it with a whole social attitude, so that it became a sort of zeitgeist, the soundtrack to a counter-cultural movement (in much the same way as Hendrix, Santana, et al, would be for the 60s Hippie Movement). But today, jazz is either pleasant, sophisticated background music, or, if not background music, music not to be listened to that closely, not to be analyzed too much, because it’s not an intellectual form, it’s easy on the ear, it’s not too much trouble. (An alternative view is that perhaps encouraged by some critical commentary on jazz, that perpetuated by the Fast Show sketch where it becomes a series of stock, smarmy ‘hipster’ phrases (“nice…great…”) and hopelessly members-only musical jargon spinning (“the famous chorus in double time modulating between the keys of B and A flat, and resolving itself in E…crazy!”). In short, it becomes a cliché, without serious thought into what the musical tics that have become clichés once stood for, and what once made them so innovative (such as be-bop melody and phrasing, once at the forefront of jazz modernism, now turned into old hat by decades of use). At its best though, jazz improvisation embodies the qualities expressed a few paragraphs ago: the exercise of creativity in a freer, looser sense than in written music.
However, that’s not really the point I’m trying to make here – I’m not trying to argue the case for the virtues of improvisation over composition or vice versa (let’s not even begin to get into the complexities of chord changes (limiting the improvisation or tying it down?), jazz composition, and so on). I’m instead trying to argue that music makes us feel, hits us in a different, almost physical way that other art forms can’t (well, apart from film, which utilizes music for a lot of its emotional appeal, and then adds the actual moving image, an approximation of reality far greater than any other art form – but that makes it a medium which is something else entirely, and out of the scope of this article). The thing with feeling is that we often can’t control what we feel, though we can hide it, to the outside world, or even partially to ourselves, through social conditioning and emotional denial, or apathy. And if music makes us feel, then perhaps we’re reaching to emotional levels we might not wish to reach – yes, it’s fine if it’s the easy romantic glow or tear-jerking of the pop ballad, or the brash exuberance of soul music or the ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude of rock music. But modernist music? – that’s something different. The fact is, a lot of us don’t like being put in touch with the pessimism, the despair, the bleakness, the utter lack of bullshit that exists in much 12-tone classical music (such as Schoenberg’s hideously disturbing Pierrot Lunaire), the bizarre, twisted humour of Captain Beefheart’s experimental blues-rock, or the anger, the pain, the utter depth of feeling in the free jazz of Archie Shepp or Peter Brotzmann (both using the music to express their radical political views).
The fact is that free jazz, modern classical music, and experimental music of various other forms, expresses what the twentieth century was really all about – progress, to an extent (what progress! technology, arts – you name it, it’s progressed massively), but, more importantly, the realization that established forms of authority were corrupt/inadequate (take your pick), and the attempt to overthrow them. The failure of religion, of Communism, of government – all engendered feelings of rebellion and anger and pain, yet at the same time, there was a real sense of vitality and excitement at the changes. This paradox comes through precisely in free jazz – while Schoenberg may be stuck in a gloomy Ewartung’s gloomy, pessimistic Expressionist forest, and Webern retreats into a crystalline, microscopic world of his own, the brutality and vitality of free jazz echoes the mixed feelings that the various counter-cultural and rebellious movements of the twentieth century brought with them.
A few lines from T.S. Eliot seem uncannily appropriate to the chaotic nature and apparent randomness of such music:
Crack, and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering
Always assail them.”
(Four Quartets: I –Burnt Norton)
He could almost be talking about a John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders or Albert Ayler solo – the cracked notes, multiphonics, and split reed technique are all methods of distorting the pure notes (or words) to try and get at the essence, to express the inexpressible (in Coltrane’s case, to express several ideas at once), to get back to the pure sound so often submerged by the weight of words, of conversation, of musical form – the cry, the scream, the shout.
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It may all be tottering on the edge of the brink (of meaninglessness, of despair, of utter pessimism, of death), but if it’s going to go over, it’s going to go over with a bang – it’s not going to go timidly. Thus, modernist music may seem incomprehensible in terms of our normal expectations of music – meaningless of terms of what has gone before. But in a century inventing new ways of thinking, of acting, of being, perhaps that’s what was needed. The Pollockian notion of action painting, the pots of paint chucked directly onto the canvas, comes to mind – Ornette Coleman’s landmark recording for ‘double quartet’, Free Jazz, had a Jackson Pollock painting on the front of the album sleeve, and though Coleman’s essentially melody-based, blues-soaked style isn’t the best analogy, action painting does have strong parallels with the free improvisations of artists such as Derek Bailey (who once said that the ideal situation to play in would be after you’d just woken up, where you were in a state of consciousness a step below your normal waking state, with all its social/cultural baggage). This is challenging stuff, sometimes moving beyond the levels of feeling I was talking about before (despair, depression, anger, etc) into a strange, colder-seeming realm (Bailey’s guitar sound, Webern’s miniatures) – but there is feeling there, too. By that, I mean feeling in the sense that the act of making music is in itself a way of expressing one’s own humanity, through creativity, and thus asserting one’s place in a totally destabilized world in which no one knows where they are any more. Music becomes not just a form of entertainment, but a form or asserting one’s identity, be it political and ideological (Brotzmann, Shepp), be it philosophical or religious (Sanders, Ayler, Coltrane), be it simply the act of existing (Bailey). I play (or listen), therefore I am. In an age of no absolutes, music could really be, as Ayler put it, “the healing force of the universe.”